Oh, fudge…

2 Apr

It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged. My apologies to all eight of you. Winter is never very inspiring when it rains 7 and a half inches in a month. However, with spring here, that means I’m more likely to get excited about random stuff and want to share  with you.

For example, perhaps it’s time to share about the elephant sitting at the bottom of my Amazon page. If you missed it…click the link.

That’s right. I’m going to talk about:

Profanity in middle grade books.

Allow me to first say: Spartacus and the Circus of Shadows is for 10-14 year olds. It also includes the following curse words: crap, crapola, shit, shitola, asshat, and the phrase shut your goddamn piehole. Whew. I already feel better about getting that out there. If you do not approve of these words, please do not buy this book for your child.

Honestly, I’m grateful Paul Bulger put that review up. Nothing was scarier than signing books for parents and choosing whether I should say uneasily, “Umm, it has a few bad words in it.”

I’m not going to discuss the parts of the review where Mr. Bulger hates on the morals of my book—no need to argue a difference of opinion when it comes to séances and lying and to mistrust everyone when you’re a runaway. (Though, frankly, I wonder why that part wasn’t brought up—I mean, is Spartacus actually advocating that children run away? That’s a huge question!) I also won’t say anything about the juvenile behavior in the book beyond: Yes, this is in fact a book for boys.

But I do want to focus on the question of swearing in books for older  middle-grade readers. I whole-heartedly agree that this is a delicate issue and I was on the fence about it myself. Where do you draw the line between realism and appropriateness?

Note that this wasn’t just brought up on Amazon. Erik of This Kid Reviews Books dedicated half of his review to this very subject. It was also a large topic of conversation in my house, on the phone with my mom, and, of course, on Facebook. I actually had a friend of a friend message me about her 10-year-old getting in trouble for saying the SH-word at school.


Okay, okay, I could just make it cut and dry and say, “Well, the publisher approved.” Raspberries and eye-rolling to all of you. But that’s admittedly a copout. Also, I’m a long-term muller and this argument has so many angles…

The next knee-jerk reaction is that I seriously doubt this would be the first time my readers will have never heard these words (okay, asshat, perhaps, but it’s more rare). I’ve met school librarians, elementary school teachers, and parents who agree and wave off my and Mr. Bulger’s concerns.

From a writer’s perspective,  the character also would have known these words from his older brother and would have used them in his head—and then, of course, they would occasionally slip out, getting him in trouble (yes, he gets in trouble for swearing at his dad—this isn’t Jersey Shore). I feel this gives the book a little authenticity: An angry thirteen year old is not going to say fudge when faced with a double-crossing brother.

In retrospect, though, I could have been more creative and glossed over the words, the way they did in A Christmas story above or in my most recent favorite, The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Or I could have made up words. Rather, I could have spent more time trying to make up better words. Meaning yes, I tried to make Spartacus say things like “cussburger!” They sounded every bit as contrived as they were—just look for the instance of Eli saying “Devil in a hang glider!” 

What do you think? When is swearing okay? Is it a simple, cut and dry answer, i.e. No-no for Middle Grade and acceptable in Young Adult? Or…?

While writing this, I found a great essay on the subject of depravity in YA novels—a sister-subject to this blog topic. Check out Sherman Alexie’s essay Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood. And while I’m not saying Spartacus is YA or in any way comparable to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I can relate to what Alexie saying: When the message behind the book is dealing with family disfunction and accepting loss…well, perhaps a kid saying holy crapola would be a bit more relatable than a character who says fudge.

On a final note, I saw Chronicle last night and there were at least five children under the age of nine there. I was a bit disgusted with the parents, probably as Mr. Bulger was with me. So I’d like to make a recommendation that extends to both movies and books for your kids: Watch a trailer. Check the description. Or, heck: Read a review. The Mr. Bulger’s are out there and they’re on your side.

5 Responses to “Oh, fudge…”

  1. josephfalank April 15, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

    I just finished up an m.s. for middle grade and in it a frustrated father curses, unaware his daughter has entered the room he’s occupying. Instead of putting those words he said on the page, I used a cover up, like: “he muttered a few choice words under his breath that I knew would get me in alotta trouble if he ever heard me say them.” But of course this was more for a glossy comic effect, whereas one of my favorite YA authors, Laurie Halse Anderson, doesn’t hesitate to include the gritty details of speech….but then, she writes stories that are darker and these words add reality. I guess you just have to know when you should go for it or when to hold back.

    By the way, glad you’re back to blogging, Molly!

  2. Barbara Watson April 3, 2012 at 9:19 am #

    Whew! What a post and what an issue! I have to say, when I write middle grade, I don’t write swear words as part of my dialogue–even if it fits the character and situation–mostly because of the kid audience (I think they hear enough swearing and probably don’t need to read it too) and partly because I don’t want it to become an issue with my story. Also, as a parent, I think there is something extra powerful about reading swear words and seeing them as opposed to hearing them. With that said, I do use instances in my writing such as, “He swore,” indicating the situation is emotional, charged with adrenalin, or whatever. With all of that said, I’m not a published writer either and am still weaving my way through many writing issues.

    • Molly E. Johnson April 3, 2012 at 11:05 am #

      Thanks for the reply, Barbara…! Your argument sounds perfectly reasonable. I wish I’d had more fun with the freedom of writing and instead included things like, “And then…I swore. That’s right. Right at my Dad. The big word, too. The one that means no hanging out with Eli for a week. The one Will says all the time and Dad doesn’t bat an eyelash, but coming out of my mouth…? That’s a different story.”

      Well, cuss. That was too easy.

  3. Ginny (Erik's Mom) April 2, 2012 at 8:08 pm #

    Hi! I’m Erik’s (This Kid Reviews Books) mom and one of those parents that had my kid ask if there was any swearing in your book. I saw the pingback come up on his site and popped over to see what you wrote. I’d like to say that Erik truly enjoyed your book (and as you know, I read it and I also thought it was excellent). When he makes recommendations for books on his blog it is for parents and other kids so if there is any profanity in the book he needs to say there is. Sorry if you feel there was too much space devoted to it. Your publisher did add to the conversation about the book with the reasons for including the profanity, but frankly, if I wasn’t given the opportunity to pre-read the book and see what a great story it is, I wouldn’t have bought it if I heard there was profanity in it –I hate to say it but, I just don’t need to deal with it as a parent. It’s also sad too because Erik would have lost out on your exceptional story. I get that you want to provide realism in the book, but it’s a middle grade book and the realism is going to be lost on a 10-13 year old anyway, so I’d vote for the silly words (that you’d probably hate writing) in place of the curse words if you want to market to the tweens. I also read Mr. Bulger’s review (WHEW!). I am about as conservative as they come but seriously Mr. Bulger – it’s a story about wacky characters. Loosen up a little!
    You really have told an excellent story and I know Erik would love to read another from you.

    • Molly E. Johnson April 2, 2012 at 9:01 pm #

      Hello Ginny!
      I completely understand your point of view and appreciate your insight. I truly didn’t find Erik dedicated too much space to the swears–seriously, someone had to say it and I’m glad it was a kid first. I’d been wanting to address the issue for a while now and I’m so happy you took the time to reply. It always is important to hear a parent’s opinion–especially one who is middle-of-the-road as far as wacky characters go. I’ve learned a lot and I’ll definitely keep your suggestions in mind for the next adventure.

      Thanks again!

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